Friday, April 28, 2023

Malabar Revolt: Fictions In History Narration

By Grace Mubashir, New Age Islam 28 April 2023 One century has elapsed after tragic anti-colonial resistance at Malabar in Northern Kerala rocked British colonialism. Still, communal controversies are doggedly unleashed to tarnish the event as a Muslim communal frenzy and drive religious divisions. The great revolt against the oppressive British Raj has not given its historical due and is employed to tarnish the valiant participants of this resistance movement. The latest recommendation of the Indian Council for Historical Research to remove the 387 martyrs' names from the national martyrs' list is one among the many moves to efface its historical significance. Malabar revolt was a chain of anti-colonial appraisals from 1921 August to 1922 February in three Taluks of Malabar. Many authentic first-hand experiences during the upheaval have been published in books like the memoirs of the then Malabar collector William Logan, Stephen F. Dale, Saumyendranath Tagore and K.N Panikker. It was the culmination of a string of small, localized resistance uprisings against colonial economic and religious policies that started in 1836. These long decades of stiff resistance have been strategically relegated as communal events of ‘Mopplas'. (Mappila is predominantly Muslims of North Kerala) by the British to justify the excuses to crush the movement. The communal history employed by imperial powers has been sadly the pet historical interpretation for many modern Indian historians and thanks to this the anti-colonial mobilization of this proportion is still mired in controversies. British documents depicted this revolt as fanatical mobilization, vendetta and plundering. William Logan (Malabar Manuel) and Stephan Dale (Mappilas of Malabar) are some of the British works in this repertoire. Marxist history depicts the Malabar revolt as an agrarian uprising against the oppressive feudal system by Hindu landlords bolstered by British military strength. They argue the revolt was due to the landholding issues that pauperized the tenants. K.P. Gayathrivallabha Iyer and K.N Panikkar have critically analyzed Malabar revolts from an agrarian perspective. Panikkar in his work has brought forward extensively land issues and the feudal economy and that the revolts escalated against the colonial masters who supported such an oppressive system. Agrarian causes have been cited by British officers too. William Logan endorsed this idea in his report of 1882 titled ‘Report on Malabar Land Tenures’. Conrad Wood also incidentally found agrarian discontent as the trigger. The reversal of Tippu reforms (1784-1792) and institutionalization of feudal landholding caused steep financial changes in society and that bred social tension against feudal lords and the colonial administrative ecosystem. To limit the historical revolt to communal and agrarian causes is to present an incomplete scenario. It certainly had political and religious motives and implications. The pan-national Khilafat Movement has influenced the developments. The Malabar revolt should be understood from the national Khilafat Movement perspective as well. Khilafat Movement has been explained as the outbreak of Muslim discontent against the domestic issues. The immediate trigger was the humiliation Ottoman Caliphate incurred under the settlement after World War I drafted by the British War Cabinet. The movement should be read as an extension of anti-colonial resistance across the Muslim world. Roland E. Miller says: “Mappila revolt was an incendiary cocktail of economic distress, independence zeal, Khilafat Movement and British oppression. These factors sporadically led Mappilas to revolt against the new hierarchies. But in 1921 it was the Khilafat factor that occupied pre-eminence while other elements made it a mass movement” (Mappila Muslims of Kerala). The pivotal factor of the revolt was the political and economic hardship of everyday life after the British took over Malabar following the Third Anglo-Mysore War of 1792. In order to crush the political support Tipu Sultan enjoyed, the British made seminal changes in the region. Bringing back old feudal lords and extricating heavy taxes from agriculture were important measures. This caused fragmentation of the Mappila economy and resulted in the resultant political irrelevance. According to British documents the majority of Mappila Muslims were tenants. The heavy taxation, unregulated land alienation and stringent tenancy system were the core hardships. While low-caste Hindus were dissuaded from rising against injustice due to religious strictures, the Mappila community often revolted for their rights, right from the Portuguese invasion of the early sixteenth century. In 1916 Mappila Muslims had formed a league of peasants against oppressive agricultural practices. They tried to ameliorate the problems through prayers and public representation to landlords and British authorities. But after British deceit came to light to divide Muslim holy places against the promises given, the revolt assumed new vigour and political symbolism. With the publication of the Severes Treaty in 1919, anti-imperial tension flared across the Muslim regions. 1919 October 17 was marked as Khilafat Day. National Khilafat Committee was formed in February 1920 in Bombay. By 1921 June 30 more than 200 branches were opened across the country. 1920 April 28 Khilafat Conference at Manjeri was an important event in Malabar. It heralded the launching of the Khilafat Movement in the region. After initial hesitation, Congress under Gandhiji's leadership accepted the proposal to work together to redress Khilafat grievances and cement Hindu-Muslim unity. On 18 August 1920 Gandhiji and Shaukat Ali addressed a large gathering at Kozhikode. Between April 23 and April 27, 1921 Congress held Khilafat Conferences at Ottapalam and Palakkad. As per these decisions, peaceful protests launched on August 21, 1921, in the Malabar region. British police with the connivance of feudal lords moved swiftly to foil peaceful protests against the authority. Police started massive arrests of leaders. On August 20 Khilafat leader Ali Musliyar approached Tirurangadi Police Station to release the arrested activists. While the discussion was on, police opened fire against people clustered around the police station. This led to chaos and this was the beginning of the Malabar revolt of 1921. Ali Musliyar surrendered after ten days. With leaders in detention, the situation led to total anarchy. At this critical moment, Congress unilaterally withdrew from the protest. This made the protest outright leaderless and chaos prevailed everywhere. Till February 1922, the revolt continued unabated. Pookkutur War (August 26, 1921), Pandikkad fight (November 14) and Wagon Tragedy (November 19) which claimed 120 lives happened during this period. The official reports show the mortality rate around 1000; unofficial documents negate this. According to unofficial reports, more than 10,000 people were murdered and an equal number were exiled. Historians and people who survived genocide allege the withdrawal of Congress as cascading factor for the protest being blown out of proportion. R.C Majumdar viewed this act as an unpardonable political blunder from Congress leadership. According to local historian C.K Kareem, ‘The revolt originated in political and agrarian woes, strengthened by dire police repression, and ended in an explosion'. Secular historians are reluctant to consider this a crucial chapter in the Indian freedom struggle. Communal narratives have painted the movement as a fanatical frenzy by Mappila Muslims to establish Islamic rule. They allege mass-level conversion and pillaging of Hindu properties. These arguments are fabrications and the statements by Hindus after the revolt attest to this fact. Khilafat leaders had cordoned off Hindu homes providing them security while cutting off British efforts to divide communities. Hindus were actively part of the movement as they endorsed sweeping changes in landholding that enabled all to possess the land. The movement was decentralized without centralized leadership and coordination. At some places, Hindu landlords and British supporters have been assaulted and few escaped to nearest places. While this part is true, many Muslim landlords and British supporters were murdered and their property seized. The revolt was against British authority and feudal landlords irrespective of religion. Militant revolutions are part of the Indian freedom struggle. These revolutions have not been given much credit as Gandhian non-violence was more popular. Gandhi, Ambedkar and Annie Besant called the Malabar riots as Hindu genocide, why? Gandhi never rejected the Khilafat or the Malabar struggle outright, but only the misdirection that came out of it. It is true that these leaders denounced it as Hindu genocide. A firm believer in non-violence, Gandhi has denounced his struggles whenever the struggles descended into violence in any part of the country. Unlike modern political leaders, Gandhi never tried to find justifications for violence or blame the police when his own ranks went astray. A good example of this is when Gandhi dissolved the Non-Cooperation Movement itself after the Chaurichaura incident in 1922. It does not mean that Gandhi accepted the communal argument that the Muslims in Malabar premeditated the massacre of Hindus to establish an Islamic state, and he adopted the same policy when the Khilafat struggle turned violent and led to mass murders. To mention one more, there is now a campaign going on that Gandhi was forced to reject the struggle because it turned against the natives. This is also untrue. Because Gandhi stepped into the national movement by leading the anti-Janmi movement for farmers' rights in Champaran, Bihar. There is also a campaign going on now that the movement turned against the Janmis which prompted Gandhi to reject it. We must not forget that when Gandhi decided to link the Khilafat with the freedom struggle, Ambedkar and Annie Besant were among the strongest opponents in the Congress. Both strongly argued that surrendering to the caliphate would lead to the hijacking of the freedom struggle by Islamist forces. When the course of the struggle ended in violence, the first thing these two did was to use that opportunity to implicate Gandhi, who had made friends with the Khilafat leaders without putting aside their opposition. The notes that came with both of them (Ambedkar's Pakistan or the Partition of India and Annie Besant's chapter of Malabar's Agony in C. Sankaran Nair's Gandhi and Anarchy) equally put all the responsibility for the violence on Gandhi. Ambedkar interpreted the tragedy as the result of Gandhi's obsession with Hindu-Muslim unity. “Mr. Gandhi was so much obsessed by the necessity of establishing Hindu-Muslim unity” (Pakistan or the Partition of India, p.158) were the words used by Ambedkar. Moreover, he alleges that Gandhi praised the Mappilas as God-fearing for killing Hindus in accordance with religion. Here are the words used by Ambedkar: “He spoke of the Moplahs as the “brave God-fearing Moplahs who were fighting for what they consider as religion and in a manner which they consider as religious” (Pakistan or the Partition of India, p.158). Gandhi was never averse to the idea of Khilafat Movement, but opposed it when it went against Ahimsa. Similarly, a section among the Congress who opposed the idea of Khilafat Movement, condemned the revolt due to their opposition to the idea of the movement. Kerala Muslim Response Against Colonialism Kerala Muslims were at the forefront of the anti-colonial struggle. It began when the Portuguese tried to sabotage trade by imposing unilateral practices. It is true that Islamic principles have always been the guide, it was for the protection of peace and homeland. It continued even when Tippu Sultan acted against the interests of the people. This continued well into the British era. It is a blunder to argue that Muslim responses always have been monolithic. Many scholars and leaders from the community had protested the Mappila outbreak even from the beginning. Although Muslim scholars issued fatwas in support of the Khilafat Movement they never thought of violent means. The leaders heralded peaceful, constitutional means for achieving the targets. But the vacuum created by the arrest of leaders and massive repression led to violent incidents in some parts of Malabar. The words of Khilafat leader Pangil Ahmed Kutty are all telling while addressing people: “Our country should be free. British should leave. But violence is not the path, struggle peacefully till the end”. The communalization will stand no chance if historians go through local records and documents produced at that time. It includes fatwas, autobiographies and newspaper reports along with recorded oral testimonies. A vast collection of oral testimonies are available from both Hindu and Muslim perspectives. The efforts to denigrate the historic freedom event as communal is a great disservice to the people who sacrificed their lives for the nation. ----- A regular columnist for, Mubashir V.P is a PhD scholar in Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia and freelance journalist. 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